Addressing Reader Sensitivities With An Iron Fist: A Case For Why You Shouldn't Always Change
BLUF: People can be stupid.
I recently developed the courage to read through the Goodreads reviews of my book, "12 Deaths of Christmas." For context, this book is an anthology of Christmas-themed horror stories, ala Clive Barker's "Books of Blood."
One review jumped out at me as a lesson for those of you new to this writing thing, interested in being published.
Better Than A 1-Star
No, it wasn't a 1-start review. It was a 3-star.
In fact, this review was complimentary in many facets, in ways that actually help me as an author.
The only critique the reader had was that the stories with the black characters were "too tropish"--seeing the black character killed by their "oppressive" white antagonists.
This person has issues if that's why they down-rated.
For one, the book is called 12 DEATHS of Christmas (emphasis mine). Someone dies in each story--duh. The reader didn't complain about the other stories, where non-black characters were killed by white antagonists. Just the black characters.
I get the whole "representation" aspect & the very true-and-sad fact that there isn't enough diversity in horror, but this reader made some huge assumptions beyond showing his ass. Namely, he can't know for sure that the antagonists were white.
That's a big jump for him to feel justified in my "overly-tropish" horror.
You see, I don't like writing (or reading) about explicit mentions of race. I prefer subtle clues about that aspect of my characters (something my editor praised me to the heavens on for my upcoming horror book, "The Scales"). I deliberately leave room for the reader to envision the characters as they choose while providing enough to serve as a foundation upon which they can construct that image.
This reader is obviously sensitive to this aspect of horror. I get it.
But he swung and missed the mark with my book with his 3-star review.
Now, I don't share this for sympathy votes or to rally the tribe. I, literally, don't get upset about constructive or negative reviews--I've been in podcasting for 9 years. I've seen more stupid reviews than any human should have to in an entire lifetime. Trust me, my skin is THIIIIIIIIIICK. I share this with you so that you, too, can prepare yourself for people's sensitivities creeping into their opinion of your stories. I'm not even upset at the 3-star; it is a pretty nice review, unfortunately overshadow by his issue.
Trust me, if you write and publish, you WILL flick someone right in their sensitivity bone. Most will just grumble behind your back, telling their friends how much of a 'jerk' you are. Some will feel so emboldened they might go to their favorite whining ground (Twitter/Reddit) and attempt to shame you. Others may even try to hit you in the pocketbook by sharing their perspective in the commercial space that is any platform that allows for reviews of books to be posted.
It's up to YOU to decide what you do with that.
My hope in sharing this is that all of you, experienced or new, think about how the reader's sensitivities will affect your writing.
Am I going to allow this person to stop my beasts and monsters (human or otherwise) from killing minority characters simply because he thinks of/perceives the murderer as being white?
Ha! Fat chance.
It doesn't mean I'm obtuse or unaware of important social issues that should have been addressed if we were a fair and equal society--which we're not--eons ago. It doesn't mean I'm not aware of those social implications of being ignorant about tired/jaded/stereotypical pitfalls of genre fiction--I study mine every single day and labor to be sure that I don't fall for them.
I'm very aware of those blemishes on our collective faces.
What it means is that I'm going to recognize his interpretation for what it is--his issue and nothing more.
Definitely not something I'd change my fiction over.
I'm going to continue taking unadulterated joy in killing characters of all races, ethnicities, genders, backgrounds and more for as long as I'm writing horror. Some of the monsters will be white; some won't, because I've learned over four decades on this dustball shooting through infinite space, that EVERRRRRRRYONE is capable of being a monster. I'm an equal-opportunity author like that.
Now, for you: What's your plan for your (future) reader's sensitivities? Because let me tell you, you will upset someone. It's just a matter of time.
Paul Sating is an author, podcaster, and mediocre blogger. His horror anthology "12 Deaths of Christmas" promises to give you plenty of sleepless nights. He has a new horror novel, "The Scales"going on pre-order soon for newsletter subscribers. And he is the creator and host of two podcasts: Audio Fiction With Paul Sating, and Horrible Writing.
Originally Published: October 2019